Developer: Fishing Cactus
Publisher: Fishing Cactus, Plug In Digital
Played on: PC
Release Date: March 30, 2016
Time Played (Steam): 6 hours
Paid: $15.94 (Multi-game bundle)
Remember when you were in high school (or maybe elementary school) and you learned how to type? The teacher would sit everyone in the class down at a different computer, and you’d spend time learning about the “home row”, proper posture when sitting at the computer, and how typing with only two fingers on the keyboard at any given time is a horrible atrocity. (Author’s note: It’s not actually. You type how you want to type. Just never let me see it, because a part of me will die.) Well, if you remember that, congratulations! And if you don’t, then perhaps this review dates me, though whether it’s in a good way or a bad way is open for debate. Anyway, those that remember such typing classes and their associated programs may remember some of the games that were incorporated in. They were often simple affairs; tending to be very Space Invaders-esque, with various objects falling from the top of the screen requiring you to type different words to destroy, eat, or otherwise interact with them. Epistory: Typing Chronicles acts as a modern reimagining of such games, including more complex gameplay mechanics, a story and collectibles, and an absolutely gorgeous aesthetic.Okay, I mentioned it at the end of the last paragraph, and I just want to get it out of the way now: Epistory is freaking beautiful. After playing through the game, I’m still left scratching my head wondering why more games don’t use its papercraft style. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Tearaway, which I’ve never played, thus rendering it irrelevant. At any rate, it’s a perfect fit for Epistory, as the whole game is centred around writing text. When new areas are unlocked, they slowly unfold from squares of paper, ink markings gradually fading away into the colours of the landscape. Trees, rocks, and bushes all have the same look to them, making the world look like some incredibly detailed paper diorama. Even the main character and her fox companion share this style, and it gives the whole game a wonderful sense of playfulness and whimsy.
On top of the papercraft aesthetic, the game boasts some wonderful lighting and atmospheric sound, which really helps to bring the environments to life. Some of the darker caves and dungeons deserve special mention, with small pinpoints of light casting small circles of illumination for navigation. About the only part of the presentation that’s a bit of a disappointment is the music. A number of songs get repeated frequently, either because they are shorter pieces that loop regularly or because they are constantly reused for the same scenarios; the battle music is a notable example of the latter. It’s a shame, really, as so much care and attention obviously went into the visuals, but possibly at the expense of the music.For better or worse, though, at least the music doesn’t really have to compliment the narrative. By that, I mean that I found the story to be severely lacking, not in content, but in engagement. Epistory takes an interesting approach to the way it tells said story; instead of taking the player out of the action to show cutscenes or interrupting gameplay with dialogue sections, the story is told as the player journeys through the world. At regular intervals, text appears along the ground, accompanied by a voiceover. It tells the tale of the girl and her fox, attempting to fill in some of the details of their excursion. Mostly, it’s told by a narrator, although there are a few points where the girl’s thoughts are directly dictated to the player. It’s an intriguing way of keeping the plot going while leaving the action uninterrupted, but one which I found to be quite disappointing. The biggest problem is one of focus. When I’m so busy trying to navigate through the world, look out for enemies and hidden treasure chests, and type various words, it’s incredibly difficult to also follow a story. It’s also not helped by the fact that the story is written in a sort of airy, verbose style that I found made it particularly difficult to keep track of exactly what was happening. I lost count of how many times an emotional point in the story would be punctuated by a sudden switch to the protagonist’s troubled thoughts, and I would be left going, “Wait, what happened? Why are they so upset?” It’s quite disappointing, seeing as the story has the potential to be interesting and emotional. It even has a nice little twist at the end that ties everything together. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to get enough out of it before then for it to have the impact it seemed to be going for.The road to that ending is a rather wordy one, not just because of the story, but also because of all the key mashing that’s required of the player. As mentioned previously, Epistory plays out like a “typing practice” game, and pretty much every action requires the player to type some word (or occasionally, random character sequence). This manifests in the gameplay in a number of interesting ways. For starters, the default control scheme is…odd, to say the least. Instead of going for the standard WASD or arrow key controls that most games of its ilk would use, Epistory uses EFJI. At first, I was baffled by this, and couldn’t figure it out for the life of me. I was constantly pressing the wrong keys, and almost considered changing over to a more “standard” layout. However, as the game progressed, the reason for this became clear: using these keys keeps your hands positioned in the centre of the keyboard, meaning that you’re always in a good “ready” position to start typing words when the situation arises. This is especially important when you’re having to deal with any one of the number of insectile enemies roaming each area. When it’s a simple of matter of tapping the space bar and hammering out a few words, dispatching foes becomes much easier than if you had to be constantly changing your hand position between movement and typing. Considering that you die in one hit, the ability to respond to the sudden appearances of enemies is that much more important.Beyond bringing enemies to an untimely end, typing is used to open chests, bypass obstacles, and even upgrade your character. The game does a good job of balancing itself so that the typing rarely, if ever feels tedious. It would have been very easy to make the typing challenges far too frequent to the point where it brought the game to a halt; this would be further compounded by the fact that entering “typing mode” stops you from moving altogether until you finish all the words on-screen or exit it. Instead, though, I was constantly running around, searching for more words to type, trying to keep my score multiplier as high as possible.
The multiplier is a small bar at the bottom of the screen that fills up and then gradually drains each time you type a word successfully (with a few exceptions). The more words you get in a row, the higher the multiplier goes, and the more experience points you’ll earn at the end. These points are saved up and eventually lead to your character levelling up. They can also be used to unlock new areas of the world, which helps to keep you from getting overwhelmed by a massive overworld right off the bat. One thing of note with the multiplier is that it does not pause during “cutscenes” (i.e. the animations that play as you unlock new parts of the world). This means that it is possible to lose a massive multiplier that you’ve built up simply because you needed to get to a new area.As you progress and level up your character, you can unlock and upgrade abilities, ranging from increasing your walking and sprinting speeds to gaining the ability to see treasure chests marked on the map. I found that the system may have been a bit too easy, though. By the end of the game, I had maxed out all of the upgrades, leaving me with really no reason to continue trying to get a large score multiplier or seek out bonus experience chests. It would have been nice if some incentive was maintained through the entire experience instead of peaking partway through. However, your mileage may vary depending on how thoroughly you investigate each environment.
One of the main things that you can upgrade are your elemental abilities. Over time, you unlock access to four different elemental attacks: fire, ice, wind, and spark (electricity). Each one serves a dual purpose of having some offensive or defensive capability in battle, while also enabling you to navigate some new part of the world. For example, in battle, attacking an enemy with fire will cause the fire to burn through their next word, meaning that you don’t have to type it. Considering that many enemies take 3 or more words before they die (particularly later in the game), this can be a huge help for dealing with powerful opponents. Outside of battle, though, fire magic is often used for lighting torches to open up new areas, as well as interacting with other flammable objects. This constant necessity to interleave different magics with one another makes the game that much more fast-paced, especially in later enemy encounters that may see you attacked by many foes that can only be hurt by a certain type of magic. Being able to rapidly switch between the four on the fly (simply done by typing the corresponding word) becomes of critical importance. Personally, I found that each power was pretty underwhelming when I first unlocked it, however, once upgraded, each had its own special use.Navigation in Epistory can be a huge pain. The game is very Zelda-esque, in that it has a massive overworld with various secrets, enemies, and dungeons strewn throughout, the latter of which sends the player into a separate area until they manage to reach the end and escape. However, there’s a pretty big disparity between the game view and the map: while the game plays from an isometric perspective, the map is just shown from a straight, top-down perspective. This means that something that’s to the north on the map is actually technically towards the top-right of your computer monitor. It’s a really weird system, and one which I found required me to jump through a number of mental hoops whenever I wanted to go to a specific place. Usually, I just pointed myself in the approximate direction and hoped for the best. On top of that, there’s no way to scroll around on the map. The game has so many hidden treasures and collectibles that I was trying to find; not being able to scroll on the map meant that I was constantly having to pause the game to take a look, just to see if there was anything interesting nearby. It’s an issue that could have easily been solved by either allowing scrolling on the pause menu map or even giving the player a mini-map on the main game screen. Instead, I found that the endgame in particular became a bit tedious, as I kept having to stop what I was doing to see if I had missed any collectibles.Speaking of collectibles and other such distractions, I found the fragments, the game’s main collectible, to be particularly compelling. Fragments are items that, when all of them are found in a certain area, form a picture that fleshes out a bit of the protagonist’s background. To a certain extent, I found the story told by the fragments to be more engaging than the main story, since the fragments can be viewed at one’s leisure in the game’s gallery. It was also cool to see the scene gradually develop with each new fragment that was obtained, and I enjoyed speculating where a scene was headed as I started to get the last few fragments in a dungeon.
The game also features an arena mode outside of the main story mode. It’s basically a score attack mode that takes the “hives” from the main game (areas where waves of enemies spawn and you have to fight them all off) and turns it into an endless rush of increasingly difficult enemies. While I didn’t find that it held my attention for long, it was a nice diversion, and the assortment of maps that are available do a good job of introducing slight twists on the formula to keep things interesting.Epistory is one of the most unique games I’ve played in a long time. It really looked and felt unlike anything I’ve ever played, and I appreciate how it managed to take something that could be boring (i.e. a game about typing) and turned it into a compelling gaming experience. It wasn’t a completely smooth transition, as there were some annoyances that resulted in unnecessary frustration and tedium. However, the game is still an impressive achievement, and a thoroughly enjoyable piece of “edutainment”, as it were.
Now to get over my killer case of writer’s cramp…